NEW YORK -- Retailers reported sluggish women's apparel sales in May, and many who enjoyed comparable-store gains for the month got a boost from hard goods, or non-seasonal items like jewelry and cosmetics.

However, some said apparel picked up later in the month as the weather warmed, and most expect the pickup to continue. Those who posted good same-store gains were Sears Merchandise Group, 8.8 percent; Neiman Marcus Group, 8.6 percent; Spiegel's Eddie Bauer division, 7 percent; Ann Taylor Stores Corp., 6.7 percent; Carson Pirie Scott & Co., 5.8 percent; Talbots, 5.3 percent, and J.C. Penney Stores, 5 percent. Those with negative comparable-store sales included Clothestime, down 16 percent; United Retail Group, 12 percent; Charming Shoppes, 10 percent; The Limited Inc., 8 percent; Younkers, 6.3 percent; Dress Barn Inc., 6 percent; U.S. Shoe Corp.'s women's apparel unit, 5.8 percent, and Carter Hawley Hale Stores, 4.2 percent.

Sears, Spiegel's and Penney's, unlike most big retailers, had strong apparel sales in May. Arthur C. Martinez, Sears' chairman and chief executive officer, said standouts included dresses -- a spokeswoman pinpointed one-piece dresses, casual vested dresses and column silhouettes -- juniors, footwear, fine jewelry and cosmetics.

Traditional swimwear, activewear in the color coral and the push-up bra were also hot.

Sales at the Merchandise Group rose 7.9 percent, to $2.4 billion. At Penney's, sales were up 5.6 percent, to $955 million, and hot categories included misses' career apparel and casual bottoms, cosmetics, jewelry, outerwear, junior sleepwear, casual tops, petite sportswear and misses activewear. John J. Shea, Spiegel's vice chairman, president and ceo, said women's apparel continued the strong momentum built up last month, with dresses and casual summer wear performing particularly well for Spiegel and New Hampton. Total sales climbed 30 percent to $189.9 million.

Sales at NMG climbed 4.7 percent, to $160.7 million. Among the divisions, same-store sales were up in the low teens at Neiman Marcus, up in the mid-teens at NM Direct, up in the low single digits at Bergdorf Goodman and off in the high single digits at Contempo Casuals. As reported, NMG is closing up to 50 underperforming Contempo Casuals stores, and a spokeswoman said 40 have been shuttered so far. Ann Taylor's sales jumped 19.2 percent, to $51.8 million.Dayton Hudson's sales rose 9.3 percent to $1.4 billion, and comparable-store sales rose 3.5 percent. Robert J. Ulrich, chairman and chief executive officer, said Target and the department store divisions achieved their sales plans despite softness in apparel.

He said Mervyn's "sales momentum was below expectations." At Target, comparable-store sales increased 6 percent.

The department store division's same-store sales rose 3 percent. In designer sportswear, stripes, linen and vests performed strongly. In moderate sportswear, T-shirts, soft jackets and casual linen separates were standouts. Mervyn's continued to lag, posting a 3 percent comparable-store sales decline. However, denim shorts, thermal knit tops, swimwear coverups, fashion bodywear and knit vests sold well.

At Federated Department Stores, which posted a 3.2 percent sales increase, to $520.2 million, comparable-store sales increased by only 1 percent. Allen Questrom, chairman and ceo, said home merchandise showed strength, but weakness in apparel resulted in below-plan sales. In the apparel-accessory category, the only standout was fashion watches.

The Gap posted an 11 percent sales increase, to $242 million, but comparable-store sales inched up 1 percent. The Banana Republic division showed particular strength in women's wear. At Gap stores, knits and sweaters were top sellers.

The Limited had another poor month of women's apparel sales, which more than offset continued strong performances in men's wear, girls' wear, intimate apparel and bath and body, the company said. Particularly disappointing results at its Express and Limited units will hurt second-quarter earnings, the company noted, adding that the lower end of Wall Street analysts' range of estimates -- $1.30 to $1.50 a share -- is in the ballpark. Total company sales fell 1.9 percent, to $498.3 million. Same-store sales were down in the low 20s at Express, down in the high 20s at Limited, and down in the low single digits at Lerner N.Y. Among discounters, Kmart Corp.'s comparable-store sales declined 2.5 percent. Overall sales rose 1.9 percent, to $2.7 billion. At Wal-Mart, same-store sales rose 4.7 percent, and total sales jumped 21 percent, to $6.6 billion.

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